In the building I live in, are many children, of different age groups. The kids are busy playing about in the evenings when I get back from work. Sometimes, I watch a few kids huddled over colourful picture books, examining and commenting on every page. The sight makes me pleased as punch. At other times, I see a squabble or two, usually over a misplaced shuttlecock. But rarely do I see a full-blown quarrel as ugly as I did that evening.
No, it wasn’t violent. The kids weren’t thrashing each other. It was essentially a verbal spat. A little guy about six years old was tugging at a book that was in the clutches of a little girl, perhaps about eight.
“Give me my book back!”
The little guy paused, fumed. “Please de do. Panna phat jaayega.” (Please give it to me. The page will get torn.)
The girl giggled, much too loudly. “What ‘panna’? It is called page, you gawaar (illiterate)!”
Some of the other kids who had congregated at the scene joined in the giggling. “Panna! Panna!” they chuckled, as if it was the funniest word they had ever come across in their young lives. The object of their laughter—the now red-faced boy—remained silent. He ran into the elevator when the door opened.
The scene stirred me up—and not in a good way. I kept thinking of how the boy’s face had gone beetroot red, how he would get mercilessly teased for the next few days. And why? Only because he had used a Hindi word when everyone else had been speaking in English. Talking in Hindi made him “illiterate”, somehow less cool, not worthy of being part of an elitist group of kids some of whom probably still needed diapers at night.
Kids say all sorts of things, I know. Very often, they don’t mean to be unkind. But what irked me was the line of thought that was clearly getting ingrained in their impressionable minds. English was socially acceptable and “high class”, but Hindi (and perhaps other vernacular languages) was best confined to the house.
I have a good guess about the source of this skewed belief system. Parents addressed everyone in English, including the milkman, the vegetable vendors, and the maids; they didn’t mind the curious glances and empty stares they received when someone failed to understand their tongue. Hindi books at the bookstore were out of bounds; you were supposed to read only English titles. It was stylish to listen to English music; Hindi songs were, at best, a guilty pleasure. If you scored low marks in Hindi in school, it was understandable, as kids “are not comfortable with it, you see”. Hindi was just something you memorised as one of India’s official languages (it isn’t, by the way, our “national language”). If you wanted to make your mark in the world, you had to rise above it.
I know, I know. Sometimes, I work myself up into a frenzy over things like these, but it distresses me to see little kids get conditioned to behave in prejudiced ways. I hope more parents realise that raising bilingual kids has been scientifically proven to be optimum for mental development. I wish more parents attempt to instil in their kids a love for languages as modes of expression, not ladders to climb up the echelons of society.
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I am taking up the April #AtoZChallenge 2019 and will post every day of the month, except Sundays. I look forward to your company!
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